Frank Hurley's broken plates

  • Written by: Marko Samastur
  • Published on:
  • Category: Catchall

We visited a wonderful exhibition a few days ago about two failed Antarctica expeditions led by Scott and Shackleton . I learned a lot, but what I keep thinking of are Frank Hurley’s glass plates.

Frank Hurley was the official photographer on Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition (1914-1917). Shackleton and his crew encountered ice farther to the north then they expected and eventually got stuck in it. It is impossible to imagine how they felt when their efforts to free their ship Endurance proved unfruitful and had to spent arctic winter on it. Ship had to be abandoned by the end of October 1915 before surrounding ice crushed it. Crew then spent next few months on floating ice. They decided to seek safety on land which meant hauling what they needed by themselves and leaving everything else behind. Which brings us to Hurley’s plates.

These were early days of photography and equipment was larger than it is now, but even today’s gear for taking large format photographs is pretty big and heavy as are prints made with it. Hurley had two cameras, a large format one capturing images on glass plates and a smaller portable Kodak using film [1] . He made more than 500 images on plates which were too heavy to carry them all, but he managed to persuade Shackleton to pick and keep 120 or 150, depending on source [2] .

Then he broke the rest.

I couldn’t find an explanation for his action in one of the most inhospitable places on earth where environment should soon enough destroy those plates without his help, but I think I know why he did it.

Expeditions were expensive and selling publishing rights for images made during trip was an important source of funding. Breaking plates ensured them that their images would be the only ones that could be printed. Breaking them was in essence an enforcement of copyright.

There is no moral to this story. It was doubtless a difficult decision in even more difficult situation. But it is hard to look at remaining images and not feel a real sense of loss. Such a waste!

If you are in London these days, then go and see this exhibition which you can find at Queen’s gallery just next to Buckingham’s palace until April 14th. I bet you won’t regret it.

Update: Exhibition closed and my theory is wrong. As visitor pointed out (with Frank’s own words) plates were broken to remove temptation to return for them.

  1. Kodak, one of pioneers of photography, recently abandoned making cameras to solely focus on their soon to be dead image printing business.
  2. Hurley continued documenting their ordeal with Kodak. Resulting images are more grainy and less sharp, but equally fascinating document of what they all went through.